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ambition of any soul, that would load itself with the universal charge of all men! How thankless is their labour, that do wilfully overspend theinselves in their ordinary avocations ! As Zachary had a course in God's house, so he carefully observed it: the favour of these respites doubled his diligence. The more high and sacred our calling is, the more dangerous is neglect. It is our honour, that we may be allowed to wait upon the God of heaven in these iminediate services. Woe be to us, if we slacken those duties, wherein God honours us more than we can honour him!.
Many sons of Aaron, yea of the same family, served at once in the temple, according to the variety of employments. To avoid all difference, they agreed by lot to assign themselves to the several offices of each day. The lot of this day called Zachary to offer incense in the outer temple. I do not find any prescription they had from God of this particular manner of designment. Matters of good order, in holy affairs, may be ruled by the wise institution of men, according to reason and expediency.
It tell out well, that Zachary was chosen by lot to this ministration, that God's immediate hand inight be seen in all the passages that concerned bis great prophet; that as the person, so the occasion miglit be of God's own choosing. In lots, and their seeming casual disposition, God can give a reason, though we can give none. Morning and evening, twice a-day, their law called them to offer incense to God, that both parts of the day might be consecrate to the Maker of time. The outer temple was the figure of the whole church upon earth, like as the holy of holies represented heaven. Nothing can better resemble our faithful prayers than sweet perfume : these God looks that we should (all his church over) send up unto him morning and evening. The elevations of our hearts should be perpetual; but if, twice in the day, we do not present God with our solemn invocations, we make the gospel less officious than the law.
That the resemblance of prayers and incense might be apparent, while the priest sends up his incense within the temple, the people must send up their prayers without: their breath and that incense, though remote in the first rising, met ere they went up to heaven. The people might no more go into the holy place to offer up the incense of prayers unto God, than Zachary might go into the holy of holies. While the partition-wall stood betwixt Jews and Gentiles, there were also partitions betwixt the Jews and themselves. Now every man is a priest unto God; every man, since the veil was rent, prays within the temple. What are we the better for our greater freedom of access to God, under the gospel, if we do not make use of our privilege?
While they were praying to God, he sees an angel of God; as Gideon's angel went up in the smoke of the sacrifice, so did Zachary's angel, as it were, come down in the fragment smoke of his incense. It was ever great news to see an angel of God, but now more, because God had long withdrawn from thein all the means of his supernatural revelations. As this wicked people were strangers to their God in their conversation, so was God grown a stranger to them in his apparitions ; yet now, that the season of the gospel approached, he visited them with his angels, before he visited them by his son. He sends his angel to men in the form of man, before he sends bis son to take human form. The presence of angels is no novelty, but their apparition; they are always with us, but rarely seen, that we may awfully respect their messages when they are seen ; in the meantime our faith may see them, though our senses do not; their assumed shapes do not make them more present, but visible.
There is an order in that heavenly hierarchy, though we know it not. This angel, that appeared to Zachary, was not with him in the ordinary course of his attendances, but was purposely sent from God with this message. Why was an angel sent? and why this angel? It had been easy for him to have raised up the prophetical spirit of some Simeon to this prediction; the same Holy Ghost, which revealed to that just man, that he should not see death ere he had seen the Messias, might have as easily revealed unto him the birth of the forerunner of Christ, and by him to Zacbary: but God would have this voice, which should go before his son, come with a noise; he would have it appear to the world, that the harbinger of the Messiah should be conceived by the marvellous power of that God whose coming he proclaimed. It was fit the first herald of the gospel begin in wonder. The same angel, that came to the blessed virgin with the news of Christ's conception, came to Zachary with the news of John's, for the honour of him that was the greatest of them which were born of women, and for his
better resemblance to him which was the seed of the woman : both had the gospel for their errand, one as the messenger of it, the other as the author; both are foretold by the same mouth.
When could it be more fit for the angel to appear unto Zachary, than when prayers and incense were offered by him? where could he more fitly appear than in the temple? In what part of the temple more fitly than at the altar of incense ? and whereabouts rather than on the right-side of the altar? Those glorious spirits, as they are always with us, so most in our devotions ; and as in all places, so most of all in God's house : they rejoice to be with us, while we are with God; as, contrarily, they turn their faces from us when we go about our sins.
He, that had wont to live and serve in the presence of the master, was now astonished at the presence of the servant; so much difference there is betwixt our faith and our senses, that the apprehension of the presence of the God of spirits by faith goes down sweetly with us, whereas the sensible apprehension of an angel dismays us : holy Zachary, that had wont to live by faith, thought he should die, when his sense began to be set on work; it was the weakness of him that served at the altar without horror, to be daunted with the face of his fellow-servant. In vain do we look for such ministers of God as are without infirmities, when just Zachary was troubled in his devotions with that wherewith he should have been comforted : it was partly the suddenness, and partly the glory of the apparition that affrighted him. The good angel was both apprehensive and compassionate of Zachary's weakness, and presently encourages him with a cheerful excitation, “ Fear not, Zacharias.” The blessed spirits, though they do not vocally express it, do pity our human frailties, and secretly suggest comfort unto us, when we perceive it not: good and evil angels,' as they are contrary in estate, so also in disposition: the good desire to take away fear, the evil to bring it. It is a fruit of that deadly enmity which is betwixt Satan and us, that he would, if he might, kill us with terror; whereas the good spirits, affecting our relief and happiness, take no more pleasure in terrifying us, but labour altogether for our tranquillity and cheerfulness.
There was not more fear in the face, than comfort in the speech; “Thy prayer is heard.” No angel could have told
him better news ;
our desires are uttered in our prayers. What can we wish, but to have what we would? Many good suits had Zachary made, and, amongst the rest, for a son. Doubtless it was now some space of years since he made that request: for he was now stricken in age, and had ceased to hope ; yet had God laid it up all the while, and, while he thinks not of it, brings it forth to effect : thus doth the mercy of our God deal with his patient and faithful suppliants. In the fervour of their expectation he many times holds them off, and when they least think of it, and have forgotten their own suits, he graciously condescends. Delay of effect may not discourage our faith ; it may be God hath long granted, ere we shall know of his grant. Many a father repents him of his fruitfulness, and hath such sons as he wishes unborn : but to have so gracious and happy a son, as the angel foretold, could not be less comfort than honour to the age of Zachary. The proof of children makes them either the blessings or crosses of their parents : to hear what his son should be before he was, to hear that he should have such a son, a son whose birth should concern the joy of many, a son that should be great in the sight of the Lord, a son that should be sacred to God, filled with God, beneficial to man, an harbinger to him that was God and man, was news enough to prevent the angel, and to take away that tongue with amazement, which was after lost with incredulity!
The speech was so good, that it found not a sudden belief. This good news surprised Zachary: if the intelligence had taken leisure, that his thoughts might have had time to debate the matter, he bad easily apprehended the infinite power of him that had promised, the pattern of Abrahain and Sarab, and would soon have concluded the appearance of the angel more miraculous than bis prediction : whereas now, like a man masked with the strangeness of that he saw and heard, he misdoubts the message, and asks, “ How shall I know?" Nature was on his side, and alleged the impossibility of the event, both from age and barrenness. Supernatural tidings, at the first hearing, astonish the heart, and are entertained with doubts by those, which, upon further acquaintance, give them best welcome.
The weak apprehensions of our imperfect faith are not so much to be censured, as pitied. It is a sure way for the heart, to be prevented with the assurance of the omnipotent power of God, to whom nothing is impossible; so shall the hardest points of faith go down easily with us: if the eye of our mind look upward, it shall meet with nothing to avert or interrupt it; but if right forward, or downward, or round about, every thing is a block in our way.
There is a difference betwixt desire of assurance and unbelief, we cannot be too careful to raise up to ourselves arguments to settle our faith ; although it should be no faith, if it had no feet to stand upon but discursive. In matters of faith, if reasons may be brought, for the conviction of the gainsayers, it is well; if they be helps, they cannot be grounds of our belief. In the most faithful heart there are some sparks of infidelity; so to believe, that we should have no doubt at all, is scarce incident unto flesh and blood: it is a great perfection, if we have attained to overcome our doubts. What did mislead Zachary, but that which uses to guide others, reason?” “ I am old, and my wife is of great age:” as if years and dry loins could be any let to him, which is able, of very stones, to raise up children unto Abraham. Faith and reason have their limits; where reason ends, faith begins; and if reason will be encroaching upon the bounds of faith, she is straight taken captive by infidelity. We are not fit to follow Christ, if we have not denied ourselves; and the chief piece of ourselves is our reason: we must yield God able to do that, which we cannot comprehend ; and we must comprehend that by our faith, which is disclaimed by reason : Hagar must be driven out of doors, that Sarah may rule alone.
The authority of the reporter makes way for belief, in things which are otherwise hard to pass ; although, in the matters of God, we should not so much care who speaks, as what is spoken, and from whom. The angel tells his name, place, office, unasked, that Zachary might not think any news impossible, that was brought him by an heavenly messenger. Even where there is no use of language, the spirits are distinguished by names, and each knows his own appellation, and others. He that gave leave unto man, his image, to give names to all his visible and inferior creatures, did himself put names unto the spiritual ; and as their name is, so are they mighty and glorious. But lest Zachary should no less doubt of the style of the messenger, than of the errand itself, he is at once both confirmed, and punished with dumbness.